(Note: This post has been edited for clarity as of 4:48 AM Eastern on 31 Dec.)
(Note: This post has been updated (1) as of 7:02 AM Eastern on 31 Dec. See below.)
I extend my thanks to playwright and weblogger George Hunka of Superfluities for his gracious compliance with my request to explain for the benefit of non-theater-goers such as myself who think live theater an anachronism why theater should survive as an art form. I thank him as well for his, "ACD, far from 'wooden-post ignorant,' knows exactly what is missing from American theater that keeps him from attending it...."
But as a matter of fact I don't know, beyond my compelling sense that, aesthetically considered (i.e., aesthetically as in the Joycean formulation), anything done live on stage in the theater can be better done in a film.
George uses as an analogue case for live theater versus film the difference between a live and recorded classical music performance, citing Glenn Gould's decision to give up live performance, and confine his performances to recordings only. George then goes on to say that Gould's recorded performances, especially of the Goldberg Variations (and here just a small correction: the 1955 recording was the "landmark" performance, not the 1981)
are prima facie different sorts of monsters than the same music performed by the same pianist in a live performance. Lacking especially is the Collective Other: the audience convening as physical community. The nature of aesthetic communion in a collective body of individuals meets a rather different need. It is the difference between communion offered as part of a Sunday church service and communion offered at the sickbed of a hospital-bound communicant.
While that's no doubt largely true, it rather misses the point as an analogue case, I think. A film of, say, Beckett's Godot (i.e., made as a film, not a filmed record of the stage play) is potentially, inherently and in itself, capable of producing a more convincing aesthetic product in terms of the play itself than the play presented live on stage (not the case in a recording of a piece of music versus a live performance of that same piece), and that capability has nothing whatsoever to do with "the Collective Other" which is a function of audience response alone, that same response experienced with film just as with live theater. My sense of the thing is that film is always potentially capable of producing the more successful and satisfactory product aesthetically in terms of the play itself because of the almost infinite control of all aspects of the realization of the text possible in film from largest stroke to smallest detail, something not possible on the stage. This is true even for the most perfectly technically crafted stage work which takes into full consideration all the limitations of the stage (I can think of no meaningful benefits; i.e., ones that are unique to the stage, and not available to film).
George concludes his post with:
We American theater workers won't get ACD back to the theater until we can give him a theater that he recognizes as a worthwhile aesthetic experience, an experience he can't get from a movie, a DVD or a television series.
So my question to George really distills down to: Of just what does that aesthetic (as opposed to the Joycean kinetic sensual) experience consist; an aesthetic experience provided by live theater and not provided by film in terms of the work itself? When film is an available alternative, what possible aesthetic justification can there be for producing a work live on the stage (i.e., aesthetic justification in terms of the realization of the work itself) other than to satisfy the sensual needs of those who get an adrenalin rush from the Bullfight Syndrome attendant all live performance of anything whatsoever, and who simply love the romance and very idea of live theater? (I omit as totally frivolous the attraction for some of occupying for a time the same physical space as big-name stars, or even just ordinary, real live actors.)
I can think of none.
Update (7:02 AM Eastern on 31 Dec): Weblogger John Shaw of Utopian Turtletop comments. My response to his comment is contained in the comments section attached to his post.